A one-atom-thick layer of carbon may one day help International Business Machines Corp. and the U.S. military build more precise radar and computers that operate at near the speed of light.
Physicists Konstantin Novoselov, 36, and Andre Geim, 52, at the University of Manchester in the U.K., have found a way to manipulate how graphene, the thinnest and toughest material ever produced, conducts electricity, a breakthrough that opens the door to its use in digital electronics.
Because graphene conducts electricity 30 times faster than silicon -- approaching the speed of light, according to the researchers -- the finding may be used by companies such as IBM to speed up computers. The material was first isolated by the two Russian-born scientists in 2004, and they were awarded a Nobel Prize last year. The latest research was published last week in the journal Science.
“They’ve observed a phenomenon that was unattainable previously,” said Yu-Ming Lin, an IBM researcher who developed the first integrated circuit from wafer-size graphene in June. The Armonk, New York-based company, which funded the study along with Samsung Electronics Co. and the U.S. Air Force and Navy, will now consider how to use graphene in semiconductors and computers, he said.
Until recently, use of graphene was limited to development of more-efficient batteries and foldable touch screens, items that didn’t require scientists to be able to stop and start the movement of electrons in the material. Novoselov and Geim were able to control the current by suspending two layers of graphene in a vacuum, reordering the electronic structure.
The finding may lead to “completely new types of transistors,” Novoselov said in a telephone interview. “You can probably start using it for computer chips, but we believe we have something different, bigger here.”
The finding is “bringing people’s attention back to graphene,” and spurring a new look at whether the material “is usable in digital widgets,” IBM’s Lin said.
The international market for graphene-based products may reach $675 million by 2020, Wellesley, Massachusetts-based BCC Research LLC estimated in February, when the material’s use as a semiconductor was considered impossible. If the new research leads to semiconductor devices, graphene would be entering what the Washington-based Semiconductor Industry Association said was a $298.3 billion industry worldwide in 2010.
“Within the next couple years you will hear a lot about transistors based on bilayer graphene,” Geim said in an e-mail. “It will be a very long road to graphene integrated circuits.”
Mobile Phones, Radar
IBM, funded by the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is researching the material’s ability to create more-efficient mobile phones, clearer wireless signals, and better radar, Lin said. The material’s magnetic traits may also enable IBM to utilize high frequency waves for medical devices that would spot diseases early on, Lin said.
Novoselov and Geim are part of a $1.4 billion effort put together by nine European organizations, including the University of Cambridge and Finland-based Nokia Oyj, to research graphene. Geim and Novoselov discovered graphene by extracting the material from a piece of graphite such as is found in ordinary pencils, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said last year when announcing the scientists won the Nobel in Physics.
Nokia, the world’s largest maker of mobile phones by volume, is investigating the material’s potential use in cell phones, touch screens, and printed electronics. Graphene as a cheap replacement for current touch screen technology is right around the corner, said Jani Kivioja, a research leader at Nokia whose team develops graphene’s electronic sensing ability.
“This replacement is really low-hanging fruit, it can happen really soon,” Kivioja said in an interview.
Graphene’s flexibility and strength - it’s 300 times tougher than steel - may lead to the Nokia Morph, the first foldable phone, the company said on its blog in June.
“In the longer run, it might be possible that graphene could replace silicon,” Kivioja said.
BCC Research said in February that the products using graphene are likely to be energy storage devices known as capacitors, and structural materials. Graphene capacitors used in vehicle batteries are efficient, according to a July 27 study by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California.
“With a graphene battery the same amount of weight and volume as a current one, you could drive 300 miles instead of 100,” said Yuegang Zhang, a principal investigator at the lab. “In that case, you’ll like to buy an electrical car.”
Research into the material has shifted more and more to companies from universities, said Elena Polyakova, chief executive officer at Calverton, New York-based Graphene Laboratories, Inc. She said that 30 percent of business comes from companies, compared with 10 percent when they started selling the material two years ago.
The company, in partnership with Ronkonkoma, New York-based CVD Equipment Corp., sells four-square-inch wafers of graphene for about $1,000. Many customers have inquired about bilayer graphene, Polyakova said.
“Demand is so high we oversold for the next two months,” Polyakova said in an interview. “They want anything that can be used for semiconductors.”